Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Hardcore car guys can conjure up all kinds of reasons to justify getting an old car. Midlife crisis. I had one just like it when I was a kid. The wife told me to get one. I needed a retirement project. I sold a car and had room in the garage. One followed me home. I saved it from the crusher. The owner couldn’t take care of it anymore …
Pick one. There is always a good reason.
Dave Beck had his own unique reason for bringing home a tired old Oldsmobile station wagon. “Back in 2000 my son informed us that we were going to be grandparents, and all we had were hot rods and Corvettes and stuff like that,” recalled the Union Grove, Wis., resident. “Nothing to haul kids, so my mission was to find a big vehicle that we could haul the kids around in. Actually, we bought this vehicle the same day my daughter-in-law went into the hospital to have the baby, which was my oldest grandson [Kaleb], who is now 18.
“I just started looking for wagons. I liked wagons and I used to have wagons. We had a pretty big family so we always used to have them. I guess I was looking to find some kind of wagon that I could fix up a little bit.”
The longtop that Beck eventually discovered and brought home was a 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 Fiesta hardtop wagon — a pretty sweet choice as far as wagons go. Not many haulers of any era could top the four-door hardtop Fiesta’s combination of beautiful vintage-‘50s looks and everyday practicality. The Fiesta was Oldsmobile’s answer to the hardtop Nomad wagon from Chevrolet, and it still stands today as one of the best-looking wagons ever.
Beck’s ride-and-white beauty is a real stunner with an interesting story behind it. He genuinely enjoyed bringing the car back to life, but it wasn’t a simple process by any means.
“There was an ad in Old Cars Weekly, so I [called and asked] about it. It was South Dakota car that a [veterinarian] owned. I didn’t buy it from the original owner but had the history from the owner and I called and talked to him,” Beck says. “I found a couple of items in the car that were there from back in the ‘50s when he had it. There was a radio repair tag under the front seat with his name on it, and then when I was doing the back on it there was a Firestone tire in there recapped by BFGoodrich that had his name on it.
“The radio repair tag had an address and back in 2000 you could still track people a little bit. I called him and must have talked to him for a couple hours, him and his wife. He told me a bunch of stories about going to Wyoming on hunting trips and running it in the ditch [laughs]. He was a country doctor [veterinarian] and he had a big HAM radio antenna on the side of it, which I couldn’t figure out why there was a big hole in the back quarter panel. He’d use the radio to call home and asked what was going on and find out, ‘Oh, Mary Lou has a cow that needs something … or going over there the dog is sick.”
The years went by and the vet eventually sold the wagon to another man. The car then changed hands again at least once before getting parked in a barn. Beck isn’t sure how long it had been sitting when he finally brought it back into the light of day, but it had clearly been quite a spell.
“It was still sitting in the barn with mouse turds all over inside. It was in there a while,” he laughed. “But when I saw the car and I knew exactly what I was going to do with it. I didn’t know how rare it was, not that it was a particularly rare car but nobody kept them. Nobody is going to redo a four-door station wagon, but for what I was looking for it was perfect.”
Back in the Wagon Business
Olds buyers could order a station wagon in 1957 for the first time since 1950. It was a reflection of the growing popularity of seven- and nine-passenger five-door wagons and meant that Olds brought back the wagon body had its own version of the now iconic hardtop Nomad. For ’57, Olds did not use a Fisher body. Instead, the company partnered with custom coach builder Mitchell-Bentley Iona Body Company, which had previous build the Packard Caribbean and 1956-’57 Lincoln Continental Mark II.
The Fiesta hardtop wagon could be had in both Series 88 and Super 88 trim lines and featured the 371-cid V-8 with J-2 tri-power, Hydra-Matic transmission, power steering and brakes, a roof rack and other goodies. Buyers could also opt for a five-door wagon with sedan styling. The regular wagon sold for $2,914 before add-ons, while the hardtop Fiesta listed for $3,017. A total of 8,981 Fiesta Super 88 wagons like Beck’s were built for the ’57 model year.
The ’57 Oldsmobiles got a nifty restyling for the model year and the J-2 option bumped the engine output to an impressive 300 hp for a modest $83. Air conditioning with a new option for ’57. The grills were larger and redesigned, and the hoods grew in size, too.
From the side, the ‘57s were identifiable by the angled chrome molding that swooped down about a foot behind the front doors and the chrome spears that ran horizontally above the front wheel openings and onto the front doors. The roof lines were slightly more rakish than previous years, and the cars wore ample amounts of bright work, from the wheel coverings, to the window surrounds, to the wide, prominent grilles that stretched from wheel to wheel.
Better Than New
Beck’s car was originally a cream beige with “a four-color gold inside. I didn’t want to restore a car and make it beige. At the time that I did it there was a guy up here that had a collection, Jess Ruffalo, and he had a Caballero here at the time that I was real interested in and his was red and white, too, and I kind of liked that color scheme.”
Beck says he had modest plans for the car in the beginning, but the project kept getting bigger and the bar kept getting raised higher the longer he worked on it.
“This was my most ambitious [project], because I took it all apart. In ’66 I built a ’37 Plymouth that I still have now, and I have restored three or four other cars, or more. The challenge was I couldn’t find any parts for it. If it had been a ’57 Chevy I could have bought anything I wanted for it. But all the stainless and some of the other unique features that I made on it I had to kind of do myself, or find it in a junkyard or restore it … Every Wisconsin junkyard was in my computer at the time. I had like 160 junkyards in there. I’d stop every time I could and look for a piece of stainless or that curved back window – that’s not replaceable. I fond one of those; and just a lot of little things. Fusick Automotive [in Windsor, Conn.] makes repo parts for them and they have a big selection of Oldsmobile parts, so I was able to order some stuff from them.”
Beck says the biggest break he got in the whole ordeal was that the car was in remarkably solid shape to begin with. It needed to be restored inside and out, but almost everything was there and the Fiesta didn’t need major surgery on its immense, curvy body.
“When I dragged it out I’d rate it about a No. 4 to a No. 3. The body was pretty solid,” he says. “Evidently they used to salt down the middle of the road back in the old days, because the left side of the car was rusted more than the right side. But overall the floor pans, I could have covered the rust hole with a quarter. There was one hole by the driver’s seat. It had a back quarter that was bad, but not terrible. The front right fender had been hit sometime in the ‘50s and it had been picked out by an old body man that put lead in it. And they don’t put lead in cars anymore. I saw the history of the car when it was all naked. It was fun. Kind of like getting a new girlfriend [laughs].
Aside from farming out the parts that needed to be rechromed and enlisting help on a beautiful new red-and-white interior and the exterior paint, Beck was able to tackle most of the restoration work himself. The entire process took about two years and he got the car back on the road in 2002. He worked under a self-imposed deadline, which he said kept him from letting the project languish.
“It took a little less than two years, actually. It was over 3,000 hours, though. I had help with the interior and I had help painting it. Other than that I did mostly everything myself. I got a rebuild kit for the motor. The rear end was the only thing I never pulled apart. It worked and it was running and there was no slip or pull in the gears so I figured I’ll just leave it and see what happens. So far so good, and it’s been 18 years. I did all the disassembly and assembly. I did all the painting in back and underneath painting. I Por 15ed the frame — this thing will last 100 years! I had to polish all the stainless and there is there is almost 300 pieces of stainless. I got real good at that [laughs].”
The Fiesta wagon still has its original drive train, power steering and power brakes and all are in great working order. But the car also has some hidden and not-so-hidden goodies that make a bit of a modern marvel. Eager to win his grandkids’ hearts, Beck hid a pop-up video screen in the front seat back (accompanied by headphones.). Hidden around the car also also eight speakers, a subwoofer under the rear bed, cold-blasting aftermarket air-conditioning unit, modern navigation system that flips up and down in front, and custom cupholders front and back.
“The grandkid motivated me. It was great motivation, and I wanted to make a good impression on my new daughter-in-law,” Beck says. “To put it back to stock, yeah you’d have to take out the cupholders and a few things, but you could probably do it in a couple days.
“Actually I was [proud] when I was done. I didn’t think I was gonna do this good of a job. My intention was to clean it up, spruce it up and paint it maybe and then when it’s all apart you start doing stuff that makes it looks a little nicer. That’s just the kind of the guy I am.”
Beck says he will soon be handing over the keys to his red-and-white wagon to Kaleb, who he figures is just about old enough to take proper care of it and start enjoying some road trips of his own. Beck has many fond memories of the car to carry him into his next project — many involving pulling a camper around the Midwest behind the Fiesta, no doubt delighting other campers populating campgrounds with more modern and traditional trucks and SUVs.
“We’ve driven it a lot, I don’t know how many [miles],” he says. “We probably put 3,000 miles a year on it. I’ve had some problems with it. I’ve broken things. I’ve broken a push rod up in Escanaba. Try to find a pushrod for a ’57 Oldsmobile up in Escanaba.
“We’ve been stranded a few times, but that’s just part of the adventure.”
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